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Philosophy of language

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Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez(Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez (1657) “But the relationship between language and painting is an infinite relationship … They are irreducible to each other: we can say what we see, what we see never lodges in what we say, and we can show, through images, metaphors, comparisons, what we are saying, the place where they shine is not the one that unfold the eyes, but the one defined by the successions of the syntax. But the proper name, in this game, is only an artifice: it allows to show the finger, that is to say to surreptitiously pass the space where we speak to the space we are looking at, that is to say, to close them conveniently one on the other as if they were adequate […] Perhaps there are in this painting by Velázquez, is it like the representation of the classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens.” Michel Foucault, Words and things, Introduction.)

The philosophy of language is particularly interested in the meaning, reference or in general meaning, of the use of language, its learning and creative processes, as well as its comprehension and communication in general, interpretation and translation.

Although the philosophical problems posed by language have been the subject of analyzes from Plato and Aristotle as well as in medieval and classical philosophy, we designate more particularly by philosophy of language, as a specific field, the analytic tradition that is developed in the twentieth century, mainly in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. However, continental philosophy has not neglected the field of language, even though it has developed another approach, especially from the concept of intentionality in Husserlian phenomenology. Ontology, metaphysics and philosophy of language are in fact linked, since Parmenides, insofar as the discourse seems to refer to reality. These two traditions, analytical and continental, were crossed, for example during the debate between Jacques Derrida and John Searle, or by the formulation of objections, by Hubert Dreyfus, to the computationalist approach advocated by Jerry Fodor.


Plato (especially in the Cratylus), Aristotle (in various works of the Organon, including Categories, Interpretation, etc.) and sophists have already written on these questions as have many philosophers of the Middle Age (Roger Bacon, Scot Duns, William of Ockham, etc.) and later modern philosophers like Giambattista Vico, Leibniz, Christian Wolff, Rousseau, Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, Kant, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Hegel, Peirce and Nietzsche.

In the twentieth century, languages have become central themes in the most diverse traditions of European philosophy, including:

  • structuralism (Émile Durkheim);
  • theory of language as part of a general theory of symbolic forms (Ernst Cassirer);
  • philosophy which has returned to the Humboldtian tradition (Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger);
  • Marxism (Valentin Volochinov, Ferruccio Rossi-Landi);
  • post-structuralism (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida);
  • feminism (Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler);
  • theory of literature (Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Paul de Man);
  • semiotics (Charles Sanders Peirce, Umberto Eco).

In the Anglo-Saxon countries, analytic philosophy has dominated the philosophical discourse on language: Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Willard van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, John Searle, Saul Kripke.

The problems of philosophy of language

The philosophy of language raises questions such as these:

  • What is the origin of language?
  • What is the relationship between language and reality?
  • What is the relationship between language and thought?
  • What is the relationship between language and knowledge?
  • What is the relationship between language and other modes of expression?
  • What is communication?
  • Does the multiplicity of languages ​​entail the diversity of ways of thinking?
  • What is a sign, a dialogue, a text, a speech, a statement?

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